By Anne Brown, Running School Program Director, Coach and Advisory Board Member
Like so many great ideas, ours started out small, then caught fire and developed a life of its own. When our kids were young and starting out in elementary school, several fitness-minded parents noticed that our public schools put too much emphasis on academia and too little focus on developing young bodies. At the same time, we were learning that too much media, ready access to unhealthy foods, and just not enough time for play had caused exploding rates of childhood obesity. We approached our principal about the limited P.E. curricula. Her hands tied with academic mandates and budget constraints, she allowed that if we could devise a plan, she would be thrilled to have our volunteer time and energy!
What could we do that would benefit the entire school population, energize the kids, improve the academic environment, assist teachers to reach their P.E. requirement and be FUN for all? The Skyridge Elementary School "Olympics" were born! Keeping with a theme of simplicity from complex rules and high-tech equipment, we held our first event in 2004. A half-mile race course was established around our beautiful tree-lined campus. All students were timed in a distance and sprint running race. All those involved - kids, parents and staff - had a great time and were eager for more. The enthusiasm was contagious! We eventually added an Obstacle Course event to the day, adding another element to improve cardiovascular activity, agility and endurance.
As the Olympics gained momentum (races held several times per semester), our statistics showed that the kids were improving at a surprising rate. Several of our parents were former elite athletes with expertise in fitness development. Tapping into their collective experience allowed the program to move to the next level. With the guidance of the Cooper Institute's nationwide FITNESSGRAM youth fitness testing protocol, we established "on-target" half-mile performance standards, called Healthy Fitness Zones, for each age group. The focus intensified to bringing unfit kids up to performance standards that equate with active lifestyles and protection against inactivity related health problems and diseases. The program emphasizes an immediate positive impact on the health, fitness and self-esteem of the students.
After four years of the Olympics program at Skyridge, the percentage of kids achieving the Healthy Fitness Zone improved to 96%. By contrast, only 60% of California's 10-year-old school children attained these standards according to a 2005 California Dept. of Education study. We surmised that our school population could be the fittest in the state of California! We had created a program proven to get kids healthy and fit. The decision was made to establish a non-profit, and to take the model to other schools in the area.
Running School, Inc. ("Running's Cool!") gained 501(c)3 non-profit status from the IRS in February 2007. Big George Ventures LLC, an eco-friendly real estate development firm from Minden, NV, headed by noted philanthropist and kids fitness advocate Dr. Ray Sidney, became the title sponsor with a generous endowment that ensured the organization's solvency for years to come.
Executive Director Brad Kearns, a former national champion professional triathlete and noted author, speaker and coach, compiled an organization stocked with advocates for children, health and fitness. Running School sought donations from corporate sponsors and individual donors, and became the official charity of the annual Auburn Triathlon. We have been able to form partnerships with corporations that supply us with in-kind donations of office space, and promotional items such as carefully screened nutritional products to keep our program lean and kid-focused. We recruited enthusiastic parent coaches and local elite athletes, including track champion Lindsay Hyatt-Barr. Lindsay won All-American Honors and NCAA championships at both Stanford and Univ. of Tenn. She is now back home in Auburn raising a family, helping motivate her mom's kindergarten class at Skyridge, and coaching at Running School events.
At the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, we launched our program to six area elementary and middle schools. By the fall of 2008-09, we expanded to ten dedicated partner schools. We visit each campus eight times per year, and start out the school year with an introductory Assembly that gets kids psyched with a highlights video, healthy eating education and elite athlete motivational message. We deliver the morning Olympics races and the afternoon Obstacle Course. Music, camaraderie and prizes (including nutritious snacks and promotional items with healthy diet/exercise messages) make each Running School day a highlight for the kids. With our intensive presence on campus, we seek to change the school culture to embrace fitness and healthy lifestyle choices. The grand finale of the year is a weekend Running School Community Fun Run event for the whole family that features a free one-mile run for kids, and 5k and 10k events for adults.
After two years in operation, the students in our program are literally making great strides toward success. We finished the 2007-08 school year with 86% of over 5,000 kids reaching the Healthy Fitness Zone standard. We will continue to expand our program as our budget allows and follow our quest to get our kids healthy and promote a life-long love of fitness. What started as a modest idea among concerned parents has evolved into a catalyst for healthy lifestyles for thousands of children.